Code, etc.

Notes on the Mars Trilogy, part 1

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is the story of the exploration, colonization and terraformation of the planet by an increasingly technologically adept human race. It follows the lives of the First Hundred permanent settlers as they build a new Martian society out of the red rock of the inhospitable world. It is also the story of the planet’s changing aspect, as it is transformed from a desert of iron oxide under a CO sky (Red Mars), through an expanse of extremophilic algae (Green Mars), to a leafy oceaned world with a breathable atmosphere (Blue Mars).

Robinson’s outlook is fundamentally more optimistic than pessimistic. While he does not fall prey to the sort of techno-utopianism that marrs something like Star Trek, he also eschews the dystopianism that characterises novels from, say, the cyberpunk movement. The future, for Robinson, is up for grabs. It will be decided by the outcome of the race between technological development and resource depletion in which one constantly leapfrogs the other.

That is not to say that he sees innovation as a panacea. The Tragedy of the Commons seems to be an almost inevitable consequence of a capitalist social structure where personal enrichment at the expense of the community is a possibility. There are really two problems to be addressed: scarcity and self-interest.
Space to build and materials with which to do it seem finite from the point of view of an earthbound culture. Expansion into space would change all that. In a world where space transportation is reliable and commercially available, resources are, for all intents and purposes, infinite. The ne plus ultra hitherto placed on economic development by the sum of the resources the Earth can contain is no longer relevant in a universe where interplanetary travel and cooperation is a possibility. For the moment, at least, we inhabit a planet of scarcity, but it is in a universe of abundance.

And a good thing it is too. Although the nascent Martian society that Robinson describes needs to adopt recycling and minimal use of resources due to the logistics of transporting raw materials, there is not attempt, at the start, to adapt their sustainable lifestyle to the Malthusian conditions on Earth. There, increases in efficiency and technology actually supercharge the process of depletion, as one would expect from the Jevons paradox.

(Jevons was an English economist who proposed that increases in the efficienty with which a resource is used tends to increase, rather than decrease, the rate of depletion of the resource.)

In a move that echos utopian thinkers of future political economy, Robinson predicts that the shift in human perspective from scarcity to plenitude and the end of resource use as a zero-sum game will result in an attendant change in social organization. If there is an explicit philosophy of history in the Mars Trilogy, this the kernel of it. Human culture progresses through a mixture of reaction and innovation, with scientific development being the driving force. Emancipation is the end to be hoped. This might sound like one of the cruder misreadings of Marx, but there are some crucial differences. There is no teleological force drawing humanity on. Its progress is not inexorable, but happens in fits and starts, and might not happen at all. The “Accelerando” that is gathering pace in Blue Mars (the settlement and flowering of human culture in the far reaches of the solar system) has nothing necessary about it. It is merely a strong possibility.

(I am not saying that this is what is in Marx, just defending Robinson from the charge that he subscribes to a caricature of Marxist philosophy.)

The overdetermination of culture by economic conditions that is a feature of most Marxisms is not a feature of Martian historical development either. While economic forces play a vital determining role in lots of ways, individual contributions, so absent in the tidal flow of dielectical materialism, often play a decisive role. So it is with Vladimir Taneev, whose gerontological treatment precipitates the world war and population crisis that shape the political destinies of Mars and Earth through the series.

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